Music, Gesture, and Tragic Declamation in the scene of the Dancing Demons
from Thomas Corneille's machine play Circé (1675)

John S. Powell



     1675 was a decisive year for the fledgling Hôtel Guénégaud. Three years earlier, Lully had acquired the opera privilège from Perrin, and upon Molière's death the following year he was granted use of the Théâtre du Palais-Royal...Molière's old playhouse. When the actors were forced to move, several of them took the opportunity to defect to the rival companies of the Hôtel de Bourgogne and the Théâtre du Marais. To avoid a crisis in the public theaters, the king intervened and commanded that the Marais company combine with the remaining actors of Molière's troupe to form a new company.

     The actors took up residence in Perrin's old theater, the Jeu de Paume de la Boutille, also known as the Hôtel Guénégaud—seen here on this contemporary map, to the right and across from the Petit-Bourbon, Molière's first theater.


[click on image to enlarge]

The Guénégaud was already equipped with the stage apparatus built by the Marquis de Sourdéac and used for the early operas of Pomone and Les Peines et les Plaisirs de l'Amour. Unfortunately though, the theater came with strings the form of the amateur stage machinist the Marquis de Sourdéac and his nefarious cohort, the Sieur de Chaperon. These proprietors of the Guénégaud theater had been instrumental in the failure of Perrin's opera; now in their capacity as machinists, they became shareholders in the new company.

     The Marais theater had been known for their spectacular machine plays since the late 1640s. When its actors joined with Molière's actors at the Hôtel Guénégaud, they brought along their stage machines. After weathering two seasons, the finances of the struggling company remained precarious. They needed a big hit—a production that would set them apart from the Hôtel de Bourgogne, which boasted of the best actors in town. The Guénégaud needed an over-the-top, Las Vegas-style blockbuster that would make full use of its resources and dazzle its audiences. They needed music, dance, flying gods, spectacular set-changes, lighting effects, and acrobats. They needed the collaboration of the likes of Baz Luhrmann, Mark Morris, Stephen Sondheim, Andrew Lloyd Webber, and Cirque de Soleil.

     And they got it with Circé, a tragicomedy by Thomas Corneille, with music by Marc-Antoine Charpentier, dances by Pierre de La Montagne, machines by the Marquis de Sourdéac, and acrobatics by Charles Alard—star of the Théâtre de la Foire.ref  The plan was to use some of the old machines of Perrin's opera, and build the new production around them. But in the event many new sets and machines were created, which took many months of advance preparation. A page from the account-books of the actor La Grange give an idea of the complexity of this production, which Thomas Corneille would call “the most elaborate spectacle ever to appear on the stage”:

[click on image to enlarge]

     A transcription and translation of the production expenses reads as follows:

We have ceased performing in order to rehearse and prepare for Circé until Sunday, March 17th. [N.B. This was a period of 3 weeks without performances and, consequently, without income for the actors.]

frais ordinaires de la pièce ...these are the daily expenses: guards, ticket-taker, box office, porters, controllers, ushers, transport of lamps and tapestry, set designers, concierge, posters and billstickers, lamps, charity and sweeping
symphonie - instrumental music, which had been limited to six strings and continuo, thanks to the royal restriction acquired by Lully on the allowable amount of music in the public theater
100 pounds of candles
dancers - the royal restriction obtained after Molière's death limited theaters to an orchestra of 6, and also stated that there were to be no dancers in the public theater...but clearly the Guénégaud company ignored that clause. In fact, we know from the company's other account books that there were 10 dancers, headed by Pierre de La Montagne.
10 little assistants - these were supernumeraries, perhaps children, who flew through the air suspended from ropes
singers and chairs [i.e., transportation to and from the theater] ...the royal restriction allowed only two singers; but we know from Charpentier's MS that the actors sang in the choruses...for their names appear next to the choral parts.
six large assistants...also fliers
four medium assistants...also fliers
10 carpenters for the upper level...the production called for a globe, or gloire, which was a large machine capable of carrying several actors; these were too heavy to suspend and move using a counterbalance system, and so they were usually positioned on an upper stage and hidden until required. In III,8, Venus appears in her palace surrounded by cherubs...this was the globe revealed on the upper stage
to Mr. Baraillon for costumes...Jean Baraillon had been the royal costumer, and had worked with Molière's company at the Palais-Royal; these would be costumes for the assistants and musicians
for 6 boys
for a powderer - in former times actors covered their faces with flour, but by the 1670s they had upgraded to face powder
10 workers
for an extra 2 skilled workers
22 laborers
4 carriers
Sr Barbier and his servant - Claude Barbier served in several capacities: he furnished the stage with tapestry and chairs, acted as usher to the amphitheater, put up posters, and even served as one of the aerial artists (see Jan Clarke, 132, n. 24)
for little expenses
increase for Sieur Charpentier
increase for Sieur of the two professional singers

     The box office receipts were quite respectable: 2661 livres the first night, 2723 livres the second, 2549 the third. The daily operating expenses for this production, in addition to the frais ordinaires of 51 livres and 16 sous, were 317 livres. So clearly, a sizeable profit was to be made by such pièces à grand the tune of over 2,000 livres per performance after expenses. In addition to the 19 actors of the company, over 120 people were involved with each performance on-stage, behind-stage, and off-stage.

     A high point of the production was the aerial battle of Act 4, sc. 5, in which 4 spirits appear on Circe's command to carry away Scylla, whom Glaucus prefers to the enchantress. While Scylla and the 4 spirits are in mid-air, 4 cherubs detach themselves from the height of the flies, battle with the spirits, wrestle Scylla out of their hands, and carry her off to Venus's palace. In his livret, Thomas Corneille praises the ingenuity of the flights and its technology:

In this combat, it is impossible sufficiently to admire the incomparable genius of the person who deigned to devote his attention to finding the means of executing it. It had first been proposed as impossible, and he has shown that nothing can be so if he applies himself to it in the slightest. [French]

     Did anyone ever get hurt performing these aerial acrobatics? Well, yes, they did. For details of this, we must turn to the daily account-books. A week after Circé opened 3 livres were paid for “chairs for the injured” (R, ii, 142). Five days later, 4 livres were given to “Toubel, who fell at Scylla [that is, just before the scene of the dancing demons]” (R, ii, 144); Toubel was one of the large fliers, who received 1 livre per performance. On the reverse of this page, we see that 11 livres had been given to “the little injured cherub” (R, ii, 144v); this must have been a serious injury, for an additional 12 livres and 11 livres were paid to him on April 5th and May 5th. On April 5th, another accident occurred when one of the large fliers fell, and 11 livres compensation were given “for his fall, and to have himself bandaged” (R, ii, 147v).



     Following these aerial acrobatics is another remarkable scene that combines declamation, music, and pantomime. The livret explains that:

Circe, surprised by what she sees, enters into a new fury, which causes her to invoke from hell Terror, Rage, Despair, and all that they include that is the most enemy of humankind. There follows a quite extraordinary scene: these black divinities appear and, by their various actions, they show that they sympathize with all the [French] feelings of Circe. But when she commands them to go spread their most deadly poisons into the heart of the Prince of Thrace [i.e., Glaucus], they remain immobile and make it known to her that the heavens do not permit them to avenge her. This powerlessness irritates Circe, and she can no longer suffer their presence. And at the same time she chases them away, she sees the Sun, who is seen in his palace.[French]

The published text of the play provides more information pertinent to this scene in the rubric at the bottom of the page:

The furies appear, followed by the blackest divinities of hell; and after having responded in the beginning of this scene to the various mood-changes of Circe with their various gestures, they let her know in the end that the heavens have made them powerless to avenge he. [French]

So, if I understand correctly, onstage we have Circe, along with Terror, Rage, Despair (who are, presumably, the furies). According to the above rubric, the three furies were followed by the blackest divinities of hell. So how many dancers would have been involved with the pantomimes? Three, according to the livret; otherwise, more than three...but no more than 10, for that was the number of paid dancers that the company had at its disposal. And I think it is safe to assume that these were dancers rather than acrobats, as we know from the company's account books that the company's choreographer, Pierre de La Montagne, was paid 55 livres “for having prepared [pour avoir dressé] the pantomimes” (R, ii, 99v, 100v). We also know from the company's daily account books that 10 marcheurs were paid for this production. Their listing as “marcheurs” may be a subterfuge because of Lully's restriction on dance; however, we saw in La Grange's Registre that they are simply referred to as dancers. Their names are recorded in the daily account books of the company:

La Montagneref
Des Oz
2 persons named Lefevreref

     What would these furies and demons have looked like? Chances are, their costumes would have been recycled from another production. The last production calling for furies and demons would have been Psyché, which had been in production as recently as January of 1673...shortly before the troupe was evicted from the Palais-Royal. Act 4 of Psyché featured a spectacular underworld scene, and when it played at court, there were 12 furies and 2 lutins...the latter of which were played by acrobats. When Psyché [livret] was given there, the enfer scene of the 4th intermède featured 8 furies [livret]. No doubt these costumes were still in the company's wardrobe at the time Circé was being prepared at the Guénégaud, and I would bet that the company made use of them—as they did props and décor from other productions. We even have Henry Gissey's drawings of the costumes used at court—seen on the right [see image below. I think it's safe to assume that furies similar to these appeared on the stage of the Guénégaud.

[click on image to enlarge]

     Now let us consider physical aspects of this scene. Circe summons the furies and demons from they must have emerged from below stage, probably through a trap-door. No doubt the first musical excerpt on your handout served as traveling music. And where was the orchestra situated during all of this? According to the theater historian Samuel Chappuzeau, who was writing in 1674:

The strings are usually 6 in number, and are chosen from among the most capable. Previously they were situated behind the stage, or in the aisles, or in an entrenchment between the stage and the parterre. Most recently they [the ensemble] are placed in one of the rear boxes, where they emit much more sound than in any other location where they have been hitherto placed. [French]

Given the integral nature of the strings in this scene, I suspect that they were positioned either in the wings or behind the stage; this was what Molière had done for the Polichinelle interlude of Le Malade imaginaire...when the strings were in dialogue with this speaking character.

Now let us turn to Circe, the eponymous leading character of this machine tragicomedy. This role no doubt would have gone to one of the leading actresses of the troupe. Unfortunately, the distribution of roles is not given in any preserved documentation--however we do have evidence that this role was played Armande Béjart, Molière's widow.

[click on image to enlarge]

 In a 1688 pamphlet entitled La Fameuse comédienne [title page,], the anonymous author describes a man who became enamored of her and who came to see her perform:

He admired her quite rightly in the role of Circe, which she played and in which she acquitted herself perfectly; she had a certain sorceresses costume, and a quantity of thick hair that made her very attractive. [French]

In fact, this gentleman began to stalk Mlle Molière, and some amusing events ensued.ref Mlle Molière's thick hair was no doubt a wig, as a contemporary painting [image] suggests. The frontispiece of the play depicts Glaucus, the river god, in the foreground, with a female figure in the background that most likely is meant to depict Circe.

[click on image to enlarge]

     What kind of actress was Mlle Molière? The roles that Molière wrote for her—Lucinde in Le Médecin malgré lui, Angélque in George Dandin, Charlotte in Dom Juan, Lucette in Monsieur de Pourceaugnac—pointed up her gift for comedy. The major roles of her later career—La Princesse d'Élide, Marianne in l'Avare, Lucile in Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme, Psyché, Angélique in Le Malade imaginaire—however, made a simple, direct appeal to the audience's sympathy. Indeed, an account of her performance as Angélique, the young daughter of the hypochondriac, across from her young lover Cléante (played by La Grange), pointed out the naturalness of her acting:

...but they know how to touch the heart and depict the passions. Their portrayal of human feeling is so convincing, and their acting so well hidden in naturalness, that one does not think to distinguish reality from mere appearance. . . .They continue to act, even when their speeches are finished. They are never inactive on the stage. They play almost as well when they listen as when they speak. Their glances never wander; their eyes do not scan the boxes; they know that the auditorium is filled, but they speak and act as if they saw only those who share the stage with them. [French]

     Now let us consider the acting style of the mid-17th Century? The profession was still in its infancy in 1643 when Molière, then 21, decided to abandon his studies at the Collège de Clérmont and pursue a career on the stage. During his 15 years of apprenticeship in the provinces, Molière, we will recall, had developed “new brand” of French comedy—one that featured the vivacity and physicality of the old French farce, tempered by a naturalness of character. Indeed, naturalness became the guiding principle which informed his troupe's approach to acting: natural tone of voice, naturalness in gesture and movement, balance, etc. This sort of truth in acting was a new approach in a craft that had hereto valued the robust and flamboyant artifice of French tragedy. In his 1663 comedy L'Impromptu de Versailles [frontispiece] Molière himself and his actors in staged rehearsal, moments before the players are to act a new dramatic piece before the King.  During the course of this play, Molière spoofed the gestures and mannerisms of the grand actors at the Hôtel du Bourgogne [excerpt 1][excerpt 2] . The play's moments of mimicry, combined with “Molière” the character's directorial notes to his troupe, provide a twenty-first century audience with a general understanding of the formal, gestural and declamatory acting style of the time.  It's a pity that his play does not give more details about specific gestures that accompanied stage declamation.

     However, It is abundantly clear that, for the most part, stage acting in the mid-17th century retained strong ties with rhetorical oratory. As Molière's biographer Grimarest put it,

The actor must consider himself as an orator, who declaims in public a speech made to move the listener. Two essential parts are necessary for him to succeed: the accent and the gesture.. . .Thus he must study his appearance and cultivate his pronunciation, to know what it is to vary the accents and to diversify it with appropriate gestures, without which he will never succeed. How is it that we see actors who seem tranquil when they dispute, angry when they exhort, indifferent when they show something, and cold when they are hurling abuse at someone.

Indeed, many of the 17th-century's leading French playwrights—such as Pierre and Thomas Corneille—were educated in Jesuit collèges for careers in law, and were well-schooled in rhetoric and oratory. Oratory gave primacy to the delivery of the spoken word, for which meaningful gesture was widely viewed as an essential concomitant. Consequently, 17th-century treatises targeted at orators, preachers, lawyers, princes, and other public speakers provide insight into the practices that would have obtained on the 17th-century French stage.

     For an understanding of the oratorical style of the latter 17th-century, one must consult a wide variety of sources.  To begin with, a handful of French treatises by a variety of 17th-century authorities on oratorical delivery will prove useful.  The following includes treatises by a Protestant preacher, a royal historian and rhetorician, a lawyer, a Jesuit teacher, a painter, and a retired actor:

Treatise on the Delivery of an Orator, or on Pronunciation and Gesture by Michel Le Faucheur, a Protestant preacher active in Montpellier and Charenton. This book was frequently quoted in the 18th Century, and was translated into English, German, Spanish, and Latin. [title page]
Method for good pronunciation of a speech, and for its lively delivery: a very-useful work for those who speak in public...especially preachers and lawyers by the historiographer and rhetorician René Bary provides a wealth of advice with regard to facial gestures, hand and arm gestures, and body language to convey various moods and passions.  [title page]
French Rhetoric, or the Precepts of the Ancient and True Eloquence, Adapted to the customs of conversations and of Civil Society: the Courtroom: and the Pulpit, was written by a prominent Parisian lawyer, Jean Le Gras.  [title page]
The Eloquence of the Pulpit and of the Courtroom, according to the most Solid Principles of Sacred and Secular Rhetoric, was written by Etienne Dubois de Bretteville, a Jesuit teacher of Eloquence.  [title page]
Lecture by Monsieur le Brun, first Painter to the King of France, Chancellor and Director of the Academy of Painting and Sculpture, on Expression both General and Specific ; enriched by Figures engraved by B. Picart. [title page]
Reflections on the art of speaking in public by M. Poisson, Comedian to His Majesty the King of Poland and Elector of Saxony. Jean Poisson was the son of the actor and playwright Raymond Poisson (known by his stage name of Belleroche) of the Hôtel de Bourgogne.  [title page]

      Most of the above treatises derive from Quintilian's first-century Institutio Oratoria, of which the 11th book discusses such matters as hand, face, and body gesture. On the importance of gesture, Bretteville writes:


Gesture has a marvelous effect, in that it reinforces the expressions of the voice. This is why Pliny the Younger, in speaking of orations of his time recited before their friends, said that were this delivery not accompanied by gesture, it would make the listeners daydream. In order for this mute language of hands, eyes, face, head, and body make a powerful impression on the mind and touch the heart vividly, it must have some connection with the subject, the passions, and the figures of discourse. [French]

Moreover, the role of giving meaning to the discourse, of directing it and clarifying it by means of various hand movements, is assigned primarily to the RIGHT hand. The lawyer Jean Le Gras states
categorically that:


All gestures must be made with the right hand, and not the left...which only accompanies or follows the right hand. [French]

On occasion, however, the two hands may act in tandem, as when the orator wishes to demonstrate something with force and insistence, when he wishes to indicate admiration, or when certain gestures necessitated the two hands—such as applause, or prayer. But to confuse the separate function of the two hands was considered very bad form. Moreover, the body normally follows the direction of the gesture ...except in certain instances, as Bretteville prescribes:


The body should always be turned toward the side of the hand gesture...except in expressing refusal, or the horror one has for something, for then it is necessary to act as if to repel with the hands and turn the head a little to the other side. [French]

To this, the actor Jean Poisson added that:


To raise the hands higher than the head, to strike fists together or one hand inside the other, to put the two fists on one's sides, to point with fingers, to spread them apart, to stretch out and cross the arms, to gesture too much, to gesture with regular action (which is called to gesticulate), and to gesture first with one hand then the other alternatively—these are all vicious gestures which will not be put up with on the tragic stage, and which can be suitable only to comedy, and which, consequently, cannot be accepted in a serious orator. [French]

Poisson brings up another interesting point: rhetorical gestures are situated in a frame that does not, in general, go above the eyes or lower than the Le Gras confirms:


To raise the hand above the eyes and lower it below the stomach is a gesture that offends propriety. [French]

Bretteville goes on to describe several common hand gestures, many of which would apply to the
Circé scene:


2. The movement of the right hand must suit the nature of the actions of which one speaks. For example, one must say “attract” while drawing the hand into itself; “repel” while pushing the hand away; “tear away” while separating the hands; “unite” while joining them together; “open” while opening them; “tighten” while clasping them together; “to raise” while raising them; “to lower” while lowering them, etc.
3. The right hand applied to the stomach is a seemly gesture when the orator speaks of himself, or when he indicates some affection of the heart.
4. One must raise the hand while vowing an oath... [French]

     Naturally, violent passions may call for a break with the rules in order to give more believability to the sentiments expressed by the character—in which case the actor may raise his hands above the head without concern for the rules “if passion took them there” (as Grimarest says). Lateral gestures were used sparingly, usually when the orator marks figures of disdain or scorn. Poisson explains that:


I will say however that these gestures, used sparingly, would be acceptable in fury and other vehement passions, especially in a gracious man. We have several examples in the theater and elsewhere; but these examples are not to be followed. A great orator and a great actor can take chances with some things; one can imitate them, but one ought not to imitate them except in that which is fine, good, and natural. One must study all these things, but render them so familiar that the artfulness be entirely hidden to make it seem more true, more natural, and more persuasive.  [French]

     Many of the
above directions may be corroborated through iconographical evidence.  For instance, a brief look through the frontispieces designed by Brissart and engraved by Sauvé for the 1682 edition of Molière's Oeuvres complètes confirms that gesturing was primarily confined to this frame.


Le Cocu imaginaire
Les Amants magnifiques
Les Femmes savantes

In the case of broad comedy, the frame could be expanded and the gestures could transgress the rules of bienséance for comic effect:


Monsieur de Pourceaugnac
Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme
Les Précieuses ridicules

Of particular interest are Molière's two machine-plays, Amphitryon and Psyché.  In the first, we see Sosie gesture with one hand...his right hand...when he sees Jupiter appear on his eagle; in the second, Psyche gestures with both hands when Cupid flies away after she discovers his true identity.


     The various facial, hand, and body gestures discussed in the above-mentioned treatises may be effectively applied to the scene of the dancing demons in Circé.  When the sorceress begins the scene with the following lines:

Je m'abandonne à mes justes fureurs.
Sus, Divinitez implacables,
Qu'autrefois l'Acheron engendra de la Nuit,
Terreur, desespoir, rage, & tout ce qui vous suit,
Quand pour des projets effroyables
A quitter les Enfers mon ordre vous reduit,
Hastez-vous de sortir de vos Demeures sombres.
C'est Circé qui le veut.
I give in to my just fury.
arise, relentless divinities,
that Acheron once procreated from Night,
Terror, Despair, Rage, and all who follow you,
when my order obliges you to leave Hell
to fulfill my dreadful plans,
hasten to leave your black regions.
'Tis Circé who commands it.

Circe's expression of fury could be accompanied by what Bary calls the “Gesture of Wrath,” which


requires one to raise the eyelids horribly and jut out the lower lip—for someone who is fiercely stung by an affront for which he expects right away to exact vengeance, seems already to be taking revenge. And in vengeance the eye is aflame, and the jutting lip indicates animosity. [French]

This facial gesture is depicted by Le Brun:

[click on image to enlarge]

The mention of hell might require eyes fixed downwards, followed by a rising, summoning hand gesture to call up the furies. The final line, “'Tis Circe who commands it,” calls for Bary's “Gesture of Command,” whereby


one extends the arm [i.e., the right arm] in a straight line and has the hand a little cupped toward the ground, for this action marks the inferiority of those to whom one speaks. [French]

According to the stage direction in the printed play:

Les Furies paraissent suivies des plus noires Divinitez de l'Enfer; & apres avoir répondu dans le commencement de cette Scene aux divers mouvements de Circé par leurs différents actions, elles luy font connoistre sur la fin, que le Ciel les a mises dans l'impuissance de la vanger. The furies appear, followed by the blackest divinities of hell; and after having responded in the beginning of this scene to the various mood-changes of Circe with their various gestures, they let her know in the end that the heavens have made them helpless to avenge her.

Excerpt 1.

Dorine and Circe then continue, in mid-alexandrine:


                                                               Tu le vois,
Avec quel prompte transport du noir séjour des Ombres
Elles accourent à ma voix.
                                                         You see,
with what promptness from the black region of the shades, they come at my command.

Thereupon the furies and demons arrive on-stage to dotted rhythms and make “signs of obedience”...perhaps symbolized by downcast eyes, bowed heads, and hands at their sides:

Excerpt 2.

 Circe's next line


Je triomphe, & leur veuë en me tirant de peine
De cent plaisirs secrets me fait gouster l'appas.

I triumph, and their sight, while taking away the pain,
lets me enjoy the delight of a hundred secret pleasures.

might be accompanied by a gesture of triumph.  According to Bary:


Triumph requires one to look sidelong toward the heavens, move the right arm toward the left, and to lower and raise the head a little, because to be triumphant implies that one wins something significant, and this indicates a momentary improvement.  [French][French]

The furies and demons, in turn, share in her elation with visible signs of joy.


Excerpt 3.

With regard to the expression of joy, Bary says:


Unlike all the passions of which we have just spoken, joy takes hold of the soul, and the gestures that express it are quite different...for in this passion, the forehead is serene, eyebrow without movement and raised in the middle, the eyes open and smiling, pupils bright and radiant, nostrils the slightest bit open, corners of the mouth raised, complexion lively, cheeks and lips bright red. [French]

Le Brun provides a graphic illustration of this facial gesture

[click on image to enlarge]


     Circe then continues with a rhetorical question:


Contre un ingrat il faut servir ma haine;
N'y consentez-vous pas?
I should use my hatred against this ingrate;
Don't you agree?

For interrogation, Bary recommends the following gesture:


Prosecutorial interrogation requires one to put the hand on the side, because this question requires a proud posture. [French] [French]


We can see this particular gesture in the frontispiece to Molière's Dom Juan. This may well be sc. 12, where the statue of the commander invites Don Juan to supper...and then asks him if he has the courage to accept.

[click on image to enlarge]

 The furies and demons meekly agree with gestures of “complaisance”: 

Excerpt 4.

      Circe then continues her speech, with a command at the end of the second line:

C'est assez; pour punir un lâche qui m'outrage,
Je veux que dans son sein vous versiez l'envy.
‘Tis enough; so as to punish a coward who offends me,
I demand that you fill his breast with envy.

Her first sentence might well call for Bary's “Gesture of Resolve” :


Resolve requires on to turn the head toward the left side, because this turning of the head indicates that one is far removed from doing what others wish. [French]

but then in the third line, she suddenly questions her own judgment:

Quoy, cet Amant si cher se sera donc ravy:
Cruelle, sçais-tu bien qu'ordonne ta rage?
What! this dear lover will thus be stolen away:
Cruel Circe, do you know well what your rage commands?

This might call for the gesture one makes when speaking of one's described by Le Faucheur:


 The right hand is placed at the right moment on the chest when the orator speaks of himself, or when he refers to his feelings, his heart, his soul, or his conscience. I say simply placed, for one must only rest the hand upon it, and not strike it, as many do. [French]

In her authoritative study on the performance-practice of French classical acting [Déclamation et jeu scénique en France à l'âge classique (1629-1680)] [ref.],, Sabine Chaouche provides the following image illustrating this gesture. 

[click on image to enlarge]

The furies and demons reflect her equivocation in a passage marked “wrath...and tenderness”.

Excerpt 5.
Tenderness or affection, according to Bary,

requires one to place the fingers on the stomach, because the heart is the seat of the passions. [French]

     Ashamed of her weakness, Circe continues:

Tendresse indigne de Circé!
On me brave , & je crains d'en trop croire ma haine?
Allez, c'est... Qu'à nommer un Amant fait de peine,
Quand après son nom prononcé
On en voit la perte certaine!
Tenderness unworthy of Circe!
I've been defied, and I fear believing in my hate?
Go, 'tis... How painful it is to name a lover,
when after, once his name is pronounced,
one sees his certain loss.


 The first couplet might call for Bary's “Gesture of Despondency”:


Despondency or dismay requires that each arm fall in a straight line toward each side of the body, because the drop of the arms always implies a kind of failing. [French]

Circe's command to “Go” might be accompanied either by Bary's “Gesture of Command” or, perhaps better, by Bretteville's “Gesture of Repulsion”...whereby the hand pushes away from the body. But then Circe immediately turns introspective when she considers “How painful it is to name a lover when after, once his name is pronounced, one sees his certain loss.” This might call for Bary's “Gesture of Lament”, whereby:

one inclines the head sometimes toward the right shoulder, and sometimes toward the left; that one intertwines the fingers, and turns the interlaced hands toward the chest... [French]

I owe another debt of thanks to Sabine Chaouche, who provides the following striking image of this gesture in her edition of seven important treatises on acting of this period [ref.]:

[click on image to enlarge]

 The furies and demons alternate between rage and pity—for which each emotion has its distinguishing music:


Excerpt 6.

Once again, expression of anger may be taken from Le Brun's image:

[click on image to enlarge]

But oddly, neither Bary nor Le Brun discuss gestures of pity...although we might concoct a suitable gesture by mixing Le Brun's “Gesture of Simple Love” [left] with a pinch of “Tristesse” [right].

[click on images to enlarge]

     Like her operatic counterpart Armide, Circe continues her struggle with conflicting feelings of love and revenge:

Quelle indigne pitié tasche de m'arrester?
Les Elemens à ma voix obéissent,
La Lune en fuit d'effroy, les Elemens en frémissent,
Et le coeur d'un Mortel m'osera resister?
Partez, courez, volez.
What unworthy pity tries to stop me?
The elements are obedient to my voice,
the moon flees from fright, the elements tremble,
and yet the heart of a mortal dares to resist?
Leave, run, fly away


Line 3 might be accompanied by a right-hand gesture toward the moon with eyes raised. One might be tempted to make a hand gesture suggestive of the trembling of the elements...except that most authors discourage the orator from making such overtly pantomimetic gestures. For example, Le Faucheur says:


There are particular actions that you must never try to represent with the hand, nor put yourself in the posture of those who do them: such as fencing, drawing a bow, firing a musket, playing musical if you had a spinet under your fingers or a harp between your hands. [French]

Her command “Leave, run, fly away” could be accompanied by a lateral, dismissive gesture of the right hand...perhaps combined with Bary's “Gesture of Resolve”, which necessitates turning the head toward the left side.  The furies and demons respond with “fury and suddenness”:


Excerpt 7.


      Now we reach the turning-point of the scene, when the furies and demons stop empathizing with Circe and begin defying her:


C'est le Prince de Thrace
Qui s'est noircy vers moy de mille trahisons.
Pour le punir de sa coupable audace,
Répandez dans son coeur vos plus mortels poisons.
'Tis the Prince of Thrace
who has tarnished me with a thousand betrayals.
To punish him for his guilty audacity,
Fill his heart with your deadliest poisons.


 The furies and demons are dumbstruck and, according to Charpentier's rubric, they express their collective astonishment:


Excerpt 8.

According to Bary:


Astonishment, at least that which derives from distressing things, requires that one consider the listener with an eye extraordinarily open, that one slowly toss the head from side to side, and, allowing the arms to fall to the sides, one opens the hands—because astonishment that comes from distress is a chilling surprise, and with a surprise of this nature the soul, being expressed in the eyes, seems to have abandoned the other parts. [French]  [French]

Le Brun offers a couple of images depicting surprise or astonishment. The first image [left] is simple astonishment, whereas another, perhaps more appropriate, image [right] is the expression of astonishment mixed with fright.

[click on images to enlarge]

      Outraged by their non-response,
Circe then says:


Quoy, vous demeurez immobiles?
Je parle, & n'obtiens rien de vous?
What, you stay motionless?
I speak, and you do not respond?

This might be accompanied by Bary's “Gesture of Reproach”, which:


requires that the body, a little bent forward, travel over the pulpit [clearly Bary has a preacher in mind here], that the brow be furrowed, and that from time to time the head be wobbly. The bent body traveling over the pulpit indicates the love that one has for God; the furrowed brow and the severe stare indicates the horror that one has for sin. [French]


The furies and demons respond with “indications of powerlessness”

Excerpt 9.

How might this be expressed gesturally?  Perhaps by Bary's “Gesture of Despondency”, with their arms dropping lifelessly to the sides.


     Circe reassures the furies and demons that they needn't worry, that she no longer loves Glaucus, and that they had better obey her...or suffer the consequences:


Non, vous avez pour moy des craintes inutiles,
L'Amour est étouffe, croyez-en mon courroux.
No, you have for me useless fears,
Love is suppressed, believe in my wrath.

And, of course, Le Brun's gesture of wrath could illustrate the anger that awaits them, should they choose not to obey:

[click on image to enlarge]

Here, according to Charpentier's indication, the furies and demons “indicate that the heavens prevent them”...that is, prevent them from fulfilling Circe's desire for revenge.

Excerpt 10.

A proper gesture would be for the furies and demons to raise their eyes to heaven--perhaps combined with Bary's “Gesture of Despondency” with their arms dropped lifelessly to their sides.

     From here on, Circe's patience with the furies' and demons' intransigence begins to wear thin:


Le Ciel pour me vanger, vous deffend de rien faire,
Et vous m'abandonnez dans cet affreux revers?
The heavens forbid you from avenging me,
and yet you abandon me in this terrible setback?

No doubt hands raised and eyes looking upwards would accompany this mention of the heavens.  The furies and demons respond with “signs of helplessness...and refusal”.


Excerpt 11.

Helplessness might be expressed by Bary's “Gesture of Despondency”, with the arms dropping lifelessly to the sides and heads bowed; refusal could be expressed by Bary's “Gesture of Resolve”--whereby they turn their heads to the left and look away from Circe.

     As her fury builds to rage, Circe begins to lose control of her passions:


Ah, refus qui me desespere!
Que ne peut ma fureur... Je m'egare, me pers.
Ah, refusal that fills me with despair!
How my fury cannot... I'm losing my mind.

Le Brun's description of Rage is as follows:


Rage has similar gestures as those for despair, but they seem to be still more violent, for the face will be nearly entirely dark and covered with a cold sweat, the hair ruffled, the eyes wild and disturbed, the pupil staring back and forth between the side of the nose and the corners of the eyes near the ears; all parts of the face will be extremely marked and swollen. [French]

and h
e also offers a terrifying image of “wrath mixed with rage”:

[click on image to enlarge]

The furies and demons respond in frenzied movements that seem to reflect Circe's loss of reason:

Excerpt 12.


Circe continues with her complaint:


Donc, pour avoir raison d'un témeraire,
Je ne trouve aujourd'huy qu'impuissance aux Enfers?
Helas! fut-il jamais un sort plus déplorable?
So, to obtain satisfaction from a bold cad
I find no help today from the powers of hell?
Alas! was there ever a fate more deplorable?


Evidently here the demons make some gesture of sympathy, perhaps the “Gesture of Sadness”, with their heads inclined slightly to the again is shown in Le Brun's image:

[click on image to enlarge]   


But this only feeds Circe's anger:


Vous me plaignez? ah, c'est trop m'outrager.
Fuyez; votre presence & me gesne & m'accable,
Si vous ne pouvez me vanger.
You feel sorry for me? Ah, 'tis too much.
Fly away: your presence both troubles and overwhelms me, if you cannot avenge me.


Circe's line “Ah, 'tis too much” could be expressed by a gesture of refusal, which La Faucheur describes thusly:


. . . .to which I add that it [one's posture] must be turned in the direction of the gesture, EXCEPT for things we refuse, as when the poet says “I do not consider myself worthy of such an honor,” on in those things that we detest, as when he says “Gods! Divert from us such a great plague!” For the latter one must push away with the hand, and turn the head ever so slightly to the other side. [French] [French]

To which the furies respond by fleeing, presumably back to hell.  On the other hand, “Elles enfuyent” could also mean “they fly away”--in which case the furies would have been outfitted with flying harnesses so that they could literally fly through the air.


Excerpt 13.





     So far, I have considered gesture only with respect to Circe's spoken lines and Charpentier's performance rubrics. The audience of course would not have had access to Charpentier's descriptive titles, and so the dancers would have had to use every mimetic tool at their disposal to convey their meanings. This was the goal of gesture, as Le Faucheur points out :


Gesture has this very advantage over the word: whereas we convey meaning through words solely to our countrymen, by Gesture we make known our thoughts and our passions to all Nations indifferently. It is like a common language of all humankind, which touches the eyes no less than the word does to the ears. [French] [French]

The same argument may be made for the non-verbal language of music—that it has the ability to communicate one's thoughts and passions without recourse to the spoken word. Here, Charpentier's music fulfils the same function as providing musical meaning that needs to be taken into consideration. Consequently, careful examination of the musical gestures in Charpentier's music may well shed further light on possible physical gestures used by the demons.

     Examination of the melodic phrasing, rhythmic activity, and harmonic profile of these thirteen excerpts suggest THREE CATEGORIES of musical gesture. The first category is that of PURE PHYSICAL MOVEMENT, whereby the music accompanies movement on-stage.

     For example, in EXCERPT #1 the music depicts the entrance on-stage of the furies and demons.  Here the rhythmic activity is mainly in the top line, and diminishes in the second, third, and fourth lines respectively.  An ascending musical gesture in the top line suggests the furies and demons ascending from hell, and is accompanied by dotted rhythmic gestures.  This excerpts begins in B-flat and modulates to the dominant key of F--the tonal journey of which suggests traveling music. 

     This is balanced by the final excerpt, EXCERPT #13, which inverts the melodic gesture of #1 into a drooping arch and reverses the harmonic direction (F -> B-flat) as the furies and demons flee--presumably back down into hell--to a constant motion of eighth-notes.

     The SECOND CATEGORY consists of what I would call COLLECTIVE EMOTION. As a unit, the furies and demons either empathize gesturally with Circe's emotions, or they display through their gestures their emotional reactions to what she says. These collective emotions run the gamut, beginning with “Joy” in EXCERPT #3. Joy is represented by a dancelike, triple meter in the key of E-flat...a key that Charpentier characterizes as “cruel et dur“.  Presumably the joy that they take in Circe's anticipated revenge would have a hard and cruel edge.  The rising and leaping melodic gestures of Excerpt 3 perhaps suggests an athletic choreography. 

     EXCERPT #8 “Amazement” marks a change in the relationship between Circe and the furies and that will lead to open defiance. The first chord (in the “obscur et plaintif“ key of F-minor) depicts them as immobile with amazement.  The upper part features a “questioning“ figure characterized by three rising 16th-notes that drop a tritone, while the lowest part is almost frozen, moving by half-steps in half-note rhythms, while the middle parts fidget nervously.

     EXCERPT #5 introduces the contrasting emotions of “anger...and tenderness”, which happen in very quick succession.  Anger is characterized by scale-wise, falling tirades of 16th-notes in the first measure, which become slightly mitigated by dotted-rhythms in the second measure to prepare for the change of emotion.  For tenderness the harmony turns toward F-minor, which Charpentier describes as an “obscur et plaintif“ key; tenderness is further characterized by harmonic suspensions, and brief 4-note flourishes.

     EXCERPT #6 depicts another pair of contrasting emotions: “rage...and pity“.  Whereas anger was a constant outpouring of 16th-notes, rage elicits furious, sputtering rhythmic gestures.  The motives are short, and broken up by gasping rests and upbeats of three 16th-notes.  Pity, like tenderness, is conveyed by 7-6 harmonic suspensions in quarter- and half-note motion.

     Two pairings explore the extreme passions.
EXCERPT #7 “fureur et promptitude” depicts fury in the first 2 measures by long swells of 16th-notes that extend over the entire octave.  In the third measure, the parts snap to attention on a quarter note (promptitude), and with a final flourish in the top line they cadence on a whole-note F-Major chord...a key that Charpentier characterizes as “furieux et emporté”.  In EXCERPT #12, “fureur et desespoir” begins in the “obscur et triste” key of C-Minor, and ends in the “furieux et emporté” key of F-Major. Fury and despair here seem to be inseparable...although there are some subtle differences with the “fureur et promptitude” of Excerpt 7.  Here, the 16th-note swelling gestures of Excerpt 7 give way to conjunct, 8th-note movement in a triple meter.

     The THIRD AND FINAL CATEGORY consists of GESTURAL RESPONSES to Circe--whereby the furies and demons will make signs that take on syntactic meaning. EXCERPT #2 represents “signs of obedience,” which are firmly rooted in Charpentier's “cruel et dur” key of E-flat Major (clearly the demons are pleased to obey with all the cruelty they can muster). The musical gestures consist of upbeat, 16th-note flourishes, trills, and homophonic dotted-rhythms preceded by rests.  The dotted-rhythms should be played double-dotted, and the physical gestures ought to be snappy as well. 

     EXCERPT #4, which begins in the same “cruel et dur” key of E-flat, depicts complaisance,--or the furies' and demons' readiness to oblige.  The “bowing“ gestures set to dotted rhythms on the 2nd half of the bar suggests fawning sycophancy.  One noteworthy musical gesture is the “bow“ heard twice in the upper part...which ascends to a dissonance just before the downbeat...and then resolves downwards by skip. 

     The “Signs of Powerlessness” of EXCERPT #9 is the demon's non-response to Circe's commands. It begin in the “obscur et plaintif” key of F-Minor, and conclude in the key of C. The mode is ambiguous: the third measure begins in C-Minor (“obscur et triste”), but ends in major (“guay et guerrier”)--suggesting that the demons' signs of powerlessness are in fact just a ruse.  Of particular musical interest is the distinctively Charpentieresque chord heard in the second measure--a chord that Charpentier reserves for special occasions. The musical metaphor seems clear: as the parts move conjunctly to form a subdominant F-minor chord, a supertonic D-minor, and then a mediant 9th chord with the raised 5th, it is evident that the demons' hands are symbolically tied. 

     In EXCERPT #10 the furies and demons indicate that the heavens prevent them from obeying Circe. The “guay et guerrier” key of C-Major with which the music begins suggests that they may take secret pleasure in not complying.  This is furthermore corroborated by several gestures that point to their inability or unwillingness: namely, (1) the effective lack of harmonic movement in the first half of the excerpt, in which the harmonies keep returning to C-Major; and (2) the neighbor-tone movement of the eighth-notes in measure 1...suggesting that the parts have their hands bound, but try to wriggle loose by moving stepwise to the next note.

     For EXCERPT #11 “signs of powerlessness...and refusal”, Charpentier's choice of keys provide further insight into the demons' motivation. The passage begins in the “sévère et magnifique” key of G-minor...note the severely-augmented octave in bar 2. Then the music comes to a half-cadence on a defiant V 4/2 chord on the downbeat of bar 3. After a pregnant pause of half- and quarter-rests, the passage concludes homophonically with a perfect cadence of refusal. The modal shift to the “doucement joyeux” key of G-Major... suggests the demons' elation with this outcome. In light of this, one might chose to re-assess EXCERPT #12 “fureur et desespoir” as a mockery of Circe's own fury.

     Now, to conclude, here is a video of the scene of Circe and the dancing Furies/Demons:

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